Olio by Tyehimba Jess
Olio stands for a hodgepodge, miscellaneous collection of literary or musical selections and, true to its name, that is what Tyehimba Jess so beautifully presents in this Pulitzer-winning poetry collection. This book blew my mind, and is probably the best thing these eyes of mine have read all year.
Cleverly, Jess takes real life characters - John William "Blind" Boone, Henry "Box" Brown, The Fisk Jubilee Singers, Scott Joplin, Millie and Christine McKoy, "Blind" Tom Wiggins and more - and presents their work like never before, in the imaginary lines of his poetry, inspired by their ragtime performances of musical, lyrical, physical feat. History and poetry intertwine perfectly here to present something like nothing I've ever before seen.
Central to this narrative are the interviews of Julius Monroe Trotter, born 1895, as he retraces the final years of Scott Joplin, a leader of ragtime tunes, through the eyes of those who knew him. Trotter sends these interviews to Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois in 1927, alongside a letter to his sister, and disappears forever, last known to have joined the vaudeville.
Between these excerpts are poems, billfolds, and drawings capturing the histories of these other notable escaped slaves, musicians and artists. In Jess's words, one discovers a piece of America in the late 19th and early 20th century all too easily neglected or forgotten. I found myself immersed in the magically crafted poems - read vertically, horizontally and diagonally- always with my iPhone in hand to check fact and fiction.
This Olio is a masterpiece. Dive into its rhythm, its wonder, its music, its magic, its heavy-hearted beat, its light-fingered melody. Remember history as Jess knows it.